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Lou Hildreth: A Closer Look at a Gospel Industry Icon
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Lou Wills Hildreth, or “Ms. Lou,” as she is known by many, began her musical career at the tender age of 7, singing with the Wills Family. She is a dearly loved pioneer in the gospel music industry who, in 1969, became the first woman to own a gospel artist agency — Nashville Gospel Talent. She helped to launch the careers of many artists, including the Gatlin Brothers, Mark Lowry, Larry Ford and Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys. She has also been a regular face in the Gaither Homecoming videos throughout the years. In fall 2012, Ms. Lou was honored at the Creekside Gospel Music Convention with a tribute concert, recognizing Lou’s 75 years in the gospel music industry. Here, Lou shares with Homecoming Magazine about that exciting event, her long-time friendship with the Gaithers and what her career journey has been like.

HOMECOMING MAGAZINE:
Hi, Lou! We're so glad to talk with you today. Congratulations on celebrating 75 years in gospel music; how did you feel about your tribute concert in Pigeon Forge? Did you have any favorite moments?

LOU WILLS HILDRETH: It was a once in a lifetime event; I was tremendously honored. It was taped, so we’ll look forward to a video special on it at some time. I was thrilled to see the video tributes from Mark Lowry, Larry Gatlin, Larry Ford and all the artists who crossed the stage, held my hand and said the nicest things.

The finale was overwhelmingly beautiful; everyone came on stage, all the artists and speakers. And then my husband Howard, my son David, my daughter Kathryn and my sister Betty and her family. It was wonderful!

J.P. Miller, my co-host in television, coordinated the event beautifully, and the finale just blew me away. At the end, they played a song on the big screen by Bill Gaither; a song he had dedicated to Howard and me at a concert in Fort Worth, Texas, not very long ago. The song speaks for itself, and it’s called “Tho’ Autumn’s Coming On.” It was beautiful.

HOMECOMING: That's wonderful, and you certainly are deserving of such a special evening. Ok, we'd like to know some more about you. First of all, is the name “Lou” short for something else?

LOU: Yes, my mother and father named me Loudell — I don’t have a clue where they got that name! As soon as I got to high school, I shortened it to Lou — I was tired of being called Loudell. (laughing)

HOMECOMING: How old were you when you first began performing?

LOU: I sang my first song in public, at church, when I was 7 years old. I don’t remember when I wasn’t singing.

HOMECOMING: How did your family get started in gospel music?

LOU: Pop Wills, my father--who was a cousin to Bob Wills, the famous fiddler out of Texas — always sang gospel music with all his kids, right there in West Texas. But he actually started the official Wills Family Quartet in 1938, singing with those of us who were old enough to perform — Rene, Calvin and me. And boy, I loved it! Pop was the president of the Texas & Oklahoma Singing Convention, and we traveled all over Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and so forth to promote the convention. By the ‘50s and ‘60s, we had six brothers and sisters on stage — Betty and Bob, the twins, Norma Jo and the rest of us. Those were pretty much our glory years.

We laughed a lot. Of course, those were the days before artists traveled in the big, wonderful tour buses. Calvin always managed to buy a Cadillac, and we’d all pile in. We would leave the house laughing and come home laughing. Those were good times!

HOMECOMING: What has been your favorite part of working in this industry?

LOU:I love doing television. I feel like I’ve reached more people from the television screen than in any other way. The Wills Family did the first gospel TV syndicated series to be produced in color, “Wills Family Inspirational Time.” The Hal Smith Company in Nashville produced the series and put it in major markets across the country back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I was the host, and I wrote the theme song, “Keep a Happy Heart.” The young kids in the family like to tease me about it; when we have a family gathering, they’ll all get around me and sing “Keep a Happy Heart,” to make me laugh.

But on that show, we had 15 members of the family, plus my brother Bob had a male quartet that was his — Bob Wills and the Inspirationals. Then all the little children came along ... we had about 22. You might say we were the King Family of gospel music. Those were very blessed days.

When Howard and I relocated to Nashville in 1968, I hosted a daily television show, “Nashville Gospel,” for all my gospel artists and friends, and we really impacted lots of people for gospel music. I even got a nomination for a Dove Award for that work! But before I moved to Nashville, I helped to run a record label and a publishing company, so that was a great background for me.

HOMECOMING: What has been a challenge of working in this industry?

LOU: It was a challenge when I got to Nashville. I was the first woman to own an artist agency. I knew I could do it — I had the confidence and knew that I was called to do it. I prayed over the obstacles and tried not to make enemies. I tried to love everybody and treat everybody the same. But I did have some challenges, as we all do.

HOMECOMING: How has your faith in God impacted your career?

LOU: Yes, I always want to give an account of how much God has blessed and help me. One of my favorite scriptures is 2 Timothy 1:7, which says “For God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” Now, power is of course, the ability to do things. Love is God-given. My favorite part of the scripture is that He’s given us a sound mind — that’s the ability to make good decisions. The Holy Spirit can help us; the scripture tells us if we need wisdom, we just ask and it’s available to us. And that’s how we make any decision that’s going to have an impact. That’s one of the scriptures I live by.

I’d love to talk a little bit here about the Gaither Homecoming Bible, because my life verse in included in that Bible, which is an honor beyond what I ever expected. The scripture is Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” That’s exactly what I’ve lived by. This verse speaks to every believer, but it’s especially important for those of us who are performers. People examine our motives, and sometimes they misunderstand us, but it’s up to us to examine ourselves. We are to make certain our deeds are not to gain applause, but to bring glory to the Father.

I also wanted to talk about the songs in the Gaither Bible…one of my favorite songs is in there. I try to live by love, and the song I’m looking at here is “Loving God, Loving Each Other.” It’s my favorite right now. It echoes what Jesus told us to do in John 13:34-35: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

HOMECOMING: How did you come to know the Gaithers?

LOU: Well, I first met Bill Gaither in 1954 at the Stamps Music School in Dallas. He came all the way to Texas, and my family was there in the Dallas area, and we were at the music school. Then I met Gloria at the Quartet Convention a few years before we moved to Nashville in 1968, and I got to know her better while she was singing with the Gaither Trio.

They have blessed my life, and being on the Homecoming videos opened up even a whole new world for me after I came back to Texas to be near my family. I’m very thankful for that.

HOMECOMING: Who are some of your favorite music groups, old or new?

LOU: I don’t mind saying that the Gaither Vocal Band and earlier, the Gaither Trio, are absolutely favorites. And I love all the new groups, but I won’t name favorites! I love them all, and they know I love them. I care about their work and what they’re doing.

HOMECOMING: Can you tell us about your book, Deep Within My Heart?

LOU: I’m very proud of my book, and Gloria Gaither wrote the introduction to it. Every chapter in it is titled from a song. When I get to talking about my days in Nashville, the title is “If I Can Help Somebody.” That was our whole purpose when we got there--to help people, to help somebody. One chapter is all about Bob Wills, the country music fiddler, and then there’s a lot about the Gaithers and the videos. I even talk about the GMA Hall of Fame induction in 2005, which was very special to me. The highlight of that was that Bill Gaither flew in and conducted the induction; I was very honored for that. We’ll always remember that one — beautiful, beautiful.

HOMECOMING: For those interested in reading Deep Within My Heart, it is available at www.louhildreth.com. Now, we’d like to hear more about your family…how long have you been married?

LOU: 66 years.

HOMECOMING: That is really inspiring. How did you meet your husband, Howard?

LOU: He came home from World War II, and I was working my way through college in Arlington, Texas. I was a cashier at a theater, and he came back to his old job as assistant there at the theater. I’m here to tell you that the minute we laid eyes on each other, it really was love at first sight. I met him in February and married him in November!

HOMECOMING: What is the secret to your marriage?

LOU: I believe the major thing that you both have to do is live your life by biblical principles. It would be very difficult if we didn’t have wisdom from the Bible, and I do believe that’s necessary.

HOMECOMING: Do you have grandchildren?

LOU: Yes, Howard and I have four, ages 17 to 43. That makes me feel…I don’t use the word “old,” but I’ll say “older.”

HOMECOMING: What advice would you give someone just starting out in this business?

LOU: The main thing that I would say to anybody wanting to have a career or ministry in gospel music is that they need to have a passion for it; you can’t be casual about it. You need to know that you’re called and ask for that Holy Spirit wisdom we spoke about. Then you’ll know.

You don’t always get wealthy, being in the gospel music world, but you have so much joy, and it brings so much love. But be sure you have that passion, because there will be days when you have to draw heavily on that. Just like anything else, there are some discouraging times, but every mile is worth it. Serving God and singing songs about Jesus--that’s worth any time and any mile you ever have to travel.

HOMECOMING:
Are you still active within the music industry? How?

LOU: Yes. When Bill Gaither sang “Tho’ Autumn’s Coming On” for Howard and me, it reminded me that we are in another season of life, but I don’t plan to retire. I’d like to keep writing my articles, and I write for two or three magazines. I will do that for as long as I can. And I do an occasional television appearance and would love to keep doing that. And Howard is so good to help me…we’ll be somewhere, and we’ll be there to let our light shine.

HOMECOMING: Did you ever consider another career?

LOU: No, I never have wanted to do anything but be a part of gospel music. Seventy-five years is a long time, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

And I wanted to comment about Homecoming Magazine — it has Gloria Gaither’s print all over it. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s nobody like Gloria — she is the most gifted person with words that I’ve ever known, and then she has that precious love for people, and she’s so real. I treasure her friendship and that of Bill’s also; they have been real friends for more than 40 years.

HOMECOMING: When it’s your time to go home to the Lord, what do you hope people will remember about you?

LOU: I want people to remember that I loved them, and that I listened, and that I encouraged them. And that any time I showed up, I showed up as a shining light for the gospel of Jesus.


Below is a collection of photos taken at the Lou Hildreth Tribute Concert this past fall...